Far too often ‘elevator pitches’ give a misleading impression of a book. This time ‘Imagine Camelot but in Gotham’ is both accurate and merely a starting point. There are countless good reasons for reading this book, even if – no, especially if – like me, you’re a reader for whom Arthurian retellings are a very hard sell indeed.
This is a world where knights ride motorbikes, and fight as champions to see justice done in legal bouts, as well as for fame and fortune as their battles are broadcast for their adoring fans. Artorias, son of Uther Pendragon, rules as a reluctant king, trying to stay alive amid the malign conspiracies of rival noble families. This might be some alternate timeline, or perhaps it’s a dystopian future. There are hints that this gritty, dangerous and neon-lit world could be either, or both. The reader can decide, or simply revel in this vividly and deftly described version of London.
So far, so high-concept, but this book offers a whole lot more than mapping a familiar story onto an inventive setting. The reader will certainly find some of the characters they are expecting, though several are less obvious than you might expect. There are new players as well, rounding out a diverse cast drawn from different genders and origins. This is fantasy for contemporary readers, and definitely a world away from tales of white knights rescuing damsels in distress. The story is compelling, charting two timelines through alternating chapters. We follow Artorias through the nineteen dramatic years since he was plucked from bastardy and obscurity and landed with his birthright. At the same time, we join a would-be knight as she struggles through her training over the course of a brutally demanding year. This is made all the more absorbing by use of first person present tense narrative. This is one of those rare books where this is a valid choice to enhance the writing rather than just some ‘creative’ gimmick.
As these two stories unfold, we learn both protagonists have private aims and ambitions that won’t necessarily fit with the roles they’re expected to play. As their timelines converge, we start to realise they will surely come into conflict, even if we’re not entirely sure when or how that will happen. Gradually the pieces fall into place with the merciless clicking of a well-engineered trap which can nevertheless still spring surprises.
I thoroughly enjoyed this supremely well-crafted urban/epic/alt-reality/mythic fantasy novel. It would have been an excellent read in its own right without any of the Arthurian elements. That gloss does add another fascinating level, proving even to sceptics like me, that new takes on these well-worn myths can still capture a reader’s imagination and not let go.
Blackheart Knights by Laure Eve
27th May 2021
Jo Fletcher Books
Trade paperback £18.99, plus ebook and audio.
In my primary school and teenage days, I was an avid reader of both boarding school stories and what I have since learned are variously called ‘juveniles’ or ‘planetary romances’ by authors such as Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke. Thanks to Chaz Brenchley, I now realise those books had far more in common than I was aware of back then. All these stories were set in worlds that were equally alien to me as kid in a UK state school in the 1970s. I was no more likely to ever be a pupil at somewhere like Mallory Towers than I was to go to Mars, to skate along frozen canals and meet marvellous, scary creatures. A great deal of all these stories’ appeal for me was following characters who could be my contemporaries as they learned and navigated the unknown rules of unfamiliar and not necessarily safe environments, to come through their adventures unscathed – for mostly non-lethal values of ‘unscathed’ in English boarding schools.
So combining these traditions is quite simply a brilliant idea, creating an alternate reality where Mars is a stalwart colony of the British Empire and while boys go back to Eton or Harrow, the girls can be educated satisfactorily and more cheaply there. Thus Brenchley offers an entertaining read that’s both familiar and brand new.
This is far more than an exercise in inventive nostalgia though. Looking back, I can see how all those stories were founded on the assumptions of their respective decades and authors. Those assumptions are now to a greater or lesser extent often problematic. For a start, the stories of St Clare’s, the Chalet School, the Abbey Girls and the like, were the pretty much the only books I was reading that focused on female protagonists, viewpoints and concerns. I remember that was one reason why I actively sought them out. Everywhere else, any sort of adventure was exclusively male, or at best, male-led. Even so, I now see these girl-centered stories were as laden with outdated views on class, race and society as their overtly masculine counterparts. Brenchley is way ahead of me. With a deft and subtle touch, he interrogates the attitudes of those ‘classic; books and their era with charming ruthlessness. The reader is cordially invited to consider how many such attitudes persist and why.
All told, this book is an excellent diversion; an escape from everything that’s besieging us all at the moment. In the very best traditions of SF, it also offers us somewhere to go, where we can see where we came from more clearly.
Before I review this novel, a declaration of interest. I first met Annie at the Scottish writers’ centre Moniack Mhor, when she was a student and I was tutoring alongside Pippa Goldschmidt. Along with the rest of a talented group, I was impressed by her lively imagination, and her keenness to learn all she could to improve her craft. So I was naturally interested and pleased to learn that her debut novel was coming out from a small press.
Does this mean I can’t review it impartially? Certainly not in the way you might expect. Not for the first time with a former student’s work, I initially found myself reading it as if it were a submission rather than a finished piece. I really needed to get out of my own way and look at this story on its own merits. I also needed to get over my own inclination as a fantasy writer who gets totally absorbed in world-building to keep asking ‘but why?’ about things that ultimately don’t have a bearing on this story. These things add up to an important point about reviewers. We really need to be aware of what we’re bringing with us when we read a book, and to make very sure that that personal prism isn’t giving us a distorted view. Fortunately, I was only a chapter or so into reading this when I realised I was sitting there with a metaphorical red pen in my hand, gave myself a stern talking to, and went back and started again!
The Defiant Spark is a fluent and fun read. The premise is simple on the surface. Mana – magic – is essentially the same as electricity in this alternate, recognisably modern world. Those people with a talent for it become artisans, inventing artefacts – that’s to say, all the gadgets and appliances we’re familiar with – for the megacorporations which profit from them. Those with some but lesser talent for mana become maintenance engineers. Abelard is one of those, working in a call centre to solve ordinary people’s day to day problems.
So far, so simple. Once you stop wanting to how this situation developed if you’re me, and can flip that particular mental switch to ‘this is how it is, accept it and move on’.
But of course, things soon become complicated. An accident supercharges Abelard’s talent, with very dangerous consequences for him and for his friends. Friendship is an important theme and thread throughout this narrative, which draws the reader in and keeps those pages turning. Percik is very good at writing solidly believable, ordinary and flawed characters who make this story matter.
Another consequence is Abelard comes to the attentions of the powers that be. How could he not? This stuff is genuinely hazardous. His induction into these inner circles cuts both ways though. He soon learns a whole lot of secrets about the ways in which mana is controlled, along with those with a talent for handling it. Secrets that are doing more harm than good, from an outsider’s perspective. He also manages to set some wholly unintended consequences in motion because he doesn’t understand the full implications of what he has done, particularly in his dealings with mana-driven AI. Fortunately, Abelard still has friends he can rely on, who are still on the outside – once he mends a few fences broken by his own missteps. Unfortunately, the powers that be are determined to preserve their secrets and their control at all costs. The pace of the story accelerates fast and the action hots up!
The use and abuse of power is of course a classic SF and Fantasy theme. Percik manages to make it her own, and that’s an achievement in a first novel. She definitely avoids the all-too-common trap for debut writers of trying to engage with every other book that’s currently exploring a particular topic. Far too often, trying to join a conversation like that means a new author loses any sense of their own voice. Reading this book, I have no idea if Percik has been reading all the SF she can find over these past few years, or none. That is emphatically a good thing. This is her story, and she tells it in her own, distinctive way.
Is this novel SF though? Doesn’t magic make this book a modern fantasy? Is sci-fantasy a thing? We could debate this all day and that would be a waste of time. The story is the story, and that’s all that matters. At least, it should be. It’s worth noting here that small presses can have a lot more freedom to pick up and run with novels that defy pigeon-holing. The bigger publishers can be constrained by the practicalities of marketing categories and the commercial imperatives of offering the most acceptable books to the greatest number of possible readers. That can lead to a whole lot more of the same dominating their output, however enjoyable those books can undoubtedly be. It’s very well worth checking out small presses for unusual and unexpected novels to read alongside the established stalwarts of the genre.
So those are my thoughts on this book today. I also thought it would be interesting to invite Annie to share some thoughts on what she got from her week at Moniack Mhor, so that guest post follows this one.
I’m making a concerted effort to have less news and more fiction in my non-work time, for overall morale reasons.
So I spent some time this morning reading a rural contemporary crime novel I will not name because it is so poorly written. By page three it was already an exercise in noting ‘what not to do’. E.g. slang from my mother’s era from contemporary teens, data dump on every page, and DO NOT get me started on the detective protagonist’s alleged martial arts skills. (Yes, drink problem, wrecked home life and ‘maverick’ attitude to authority forgiven on account of results.)
Zero evidence of research was evident throughout the quarter I managed to read before giving up. Knowledge of current police procedures appeared to come from assiduously viewing Midsomer Murders. Swearing added for grittiness had all the subtlety and ultimate pointlessness of a half brick lobbed into a garden pond.
Why am I mentioning this? Because perversely, it should be a encouragement to aspiring writers. Just about every student I’ve ever taught has been better than this! And yet, this saw print and numerous sequels for the very easily pleased. This author sells by the shedload in the US apparently. As an astute publisher realised would likely be the case.
No I’m really not going to say. That would be unprofessional as well as unkind. This author clearly gets a great deal of pleasure from writing as well as interacting with their readership. Horses for courses and all that.
Instead I will wholeheartedly recommend Alex Grey’s ‘William Lorimer’ crime novels set in Scotland. Read one of those yesterday. Very readable indeed. Well constructed and fast paced, solid characterisation and the right balance with contemporary true crime in the news.
Today’s the official publication date for Brightfall by Jamie Lee Moyer, and I was lucky enough to get an advance reading copy of this intriguing and engaging book. Though I approached it with a degree of … reservation, I suppose is the best word. Even experienced writers are setting themselves a high bar when it comes to finding an original and unexpected perspective on a myth as well-known and as oft-told as Robin Hood. Moyer more than succeeds in this, and does a whole lot of other interesting things with this story as well.
We see events from Maid Marian’s perspective, and an older Marian at that. The days of high adventure in the greenwood are long behind her and all the Merry Men. Marian is now raising Robin’s children on her own, and not by her own choice. Robin has retreated to a monastery, to atone for his sins. This is the first of many sideways glances the story takes at the notions and conventions of heroism in old-fashioned tales – as well as too many modern ones. Robin’s solitary self-sacrifice has serious costs for other people. The flip-side of that heroic coin is plain selfishness, and his retreat soon looks a lot like cowardice.
Marian copes because she has no choice, and because she has a community to support her. Not just the erstwhile and no longer so merry men, but also the wild animals and faery folk of the forest. It turns out she has unexpected resources to draw on, and no need to conform to heroic story expectations of damsels in distress. However, it’s increasingly apparent that her friends and family are under threat. Tackling this menace means finding Robin and making him face up to his past and his present. Other people’s stories don’t end just because he wants to lay down his sword/bow and walk away. Now Marian must find other ways of dealing with this danger besides picking up those weapons herself.
All this plays out in a vivid and immersive setting that’s somewhere uniquely effective between well-researched medieval historical accuracy and the world of Robin Hood as seen in old British folklore instead of more recent film and TV portrayals. The fabulous cover art evokes this wonderfully, as it mirrors those old fashioned, pictorial maps that show both the practical detail of towns, roads and rivers as well as an artistic, atmospheric portrayal of a living world.
Highly recommended reading.
Three things make a post, so here we go.
Firstly, I am very pleased to confirm that there will soon be an audiobook edition of The Green Man’s Foe. I’ll share the release date when I have it.
Secondly, for those of you who will be at the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, there will be copies of both The Green Man’s Heir and the Green Man’s Foe for sale copies at Francesco Verso’s Future Fiction stall, which I think is #51 in the Dealers’ Room.
Third and lastly, we have another very positive advance reader’s verdict for your perusal over on The Middle Shelf – SF and Fantasy reviews blog.
” The Green Man’s Foe is the second in a fantasy series but you could dive into it without having read the first (though I recommend it!). It’s one of McKenna’s particular strength: she lets you catch up with ease.
For those of you coming back to it, you’ll be delighted to know that Dan is back and in fine form, along with all the things that made The Green Man’s Heir so entertaining.”
Do read the full (non-spoilery) review for more.
We watched this over the weekend, being fans of David Simon’s other work, notably The Wire and Tremé. It’s based on the book of the same name* by Lisa Belkin, focusing on events in the city of Yonkers, New York, between 1987 and 1993, following a Federal court ruling that public housing must be distributed throughout the city to end de-facto racial segregation. Local opposition was vociferous and ferocious, fearing that the spread of crime and disorder would see property values in ‘good’ neighbourhoods plummet.
Nick Wasicsko was the young politician who initially saw a route to power by supporting appeals against this ruling, though in fact he saw the new housing projects as both inevitable and desirable, according to this series at least, and let’s bear mind that his former wife was a consultant on the project. Anyway, he soon found himself dealing with the aforementioned local residents’ opposition, with other politicians out to serve their own interests by posturing over the issue, and with outside groups keen to use this conflict to advance their own agendas. Oscar Isaac, now perhaps better known as Poe Dameron, is outstanding in this central role, and the cast overall is a stellar one, with actors like Alfred Molina and Winona Ryder ensuring that supporting roles have a major impact on the story and on the screen. Oh, and it’s nice to see Jon Bernthal with hair for a change.
The miniseries is well worth watching as a drama, bearing in mind that the title comes from F Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum ‘Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy’. It’s also a compelling exploration of the deeply rooted and multifaceted divisions and complications in American society and politics~. The drama shows valid concerns as well as unconsidered prejudices on both sides together with systemic problems both in public policy and political structures. This is all the more thought-provoking when you consider that the book was written in 1999 and the series first broadcast in 2015. It showed us how the attitudes which have put President Trump in the White House didn’t spring up out of nowhere in 2016.
However, and equally, if not even more importantly, the series shows that such apparently intractable situations can be resolved. We see that given chances and choices, those disadvantaged in life from the outset by poverty and poor education can still succeed. Some of them at least. Others will never see beyond their limited horizons. We see that integration and information enables those initially fearful of unfamiliar racial communities to understand that more unites humanity than divides us. Some of them at least. Others will never abandon inherited, unexamined bias. And on both sides, there will always be those ready and waiting to exploit such situations for personal gain.
We need stories like this more than ever at the moment, to counter the seductive, deceptive narrative of easy solutions and handy scapegoats being peddled by politicians all around the world.
* I have just bought the book and look forward to reading it.
~ We in the UK have no cause for complacency. The flaws in our own political systems may be different but they should be as great a cause for concern.
World Book Day seems like an excellent day to post this 🙂
To recap, as the Guest of Honour at Novacon last year, I got to pick and discuss eight SF&Fantasy books that have had a lasting impact on me over my decades of voracious reading.
As the news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature has gone racing round the world, to a wide range of reactions (to say the very least!) my response has been perhaps a little different to most.
Because I remembered writing this, back in 2012, when I wrote an appreciation of Anne McCaffrey’s ‘The Ship Who Sang’ for SFX magazine’s Book Club column.
While some detail now seems dated, notably reverence for Bob Dylan to equal Shakespeare, …
Shows how much I know 🙂
The specific story where Dylan’s music plays a vital role is ‘The Ship Who Killed’, first published in 1966. Helva, the brainship, is partnered with Kira, a practising ‘Dylanist’. What’s that? Kira explains:
‘A Dylanist is a social commentator, a protestor, using music as a weapon, a stimulus. A skilled Dylanist … can make so compelling an argument with melody and words that what he wants to say becomes insinuated into the subconscious
A really talented Dylan stylist … can create a melody with a message that everyone sings or hums, whistles or drums, in spite of himself. Why, you can even wake up in the morning with a good Dylan-styled song singing in your head. You can imagine how effective that is when you’re proselytising for a cause.”
For those who might like to read the whole piece, I’ve added it to my reviews page. Hopefully I can find time to add a few more recent reads there sometime!
Here’s an Amazon link to tell you a bit more about the book, always remembering you can buy it from any other retailer online – or why not visit your local bookshop?
I’m very much looking forward to the return of A Game of Thrones on the telly. Though it will be a different experience this year. I won’t have to spend the next couple of months trying to telepathically divine if an article I’m about to read will include a massive potential spoiler from someone who’s already read the books. Because while I’m up to date now, I hadn’t read any of the stories behind the series before it hit the screens.
Wait, what, how? I’m an epic fantasy writer, surely… But here’s the thing. I find it incredibly hard to read epic fantasy for enjoyment while I’m actively writing a novel in that genre myself. I’m too focused on issues of craft and analysis to just lose myself in a story. I did buy a copy of A Game of Thrones back in 1999 but it sat on the TBR shelf for years…
Until word of the television series spread. At which point I very firmly put it aside. Because I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity of seeing an epic fantasy on the screen where I didn’t already know the plot. One of the things that’s stayed with me ever since watching The Fellowship of the Ring with my then-young sons, was how very different their viewing experience was to mine, since they had no idea what was coming next. As far as they were concerned, Gandalf was dead and done with. In The Two Towers, they were on the edges of their seats with anxiety over the outcome of Helm’s Deep. Actually, one of them ended up on my lap. I wanted something of that for myself for a change. By and large, I’ve mostly succeeded.
Then, at the end of each season, I’ve read the books up to the point the TV story has reached. That’s been extremely rewarding, as a reader and as a writer. I’ve had the visuals and voices from the production’s designers and actors to enhance my imagination. I’ve also had the chance to appreciate the adaptation’s choices and to assess the different opportunities and impacts on offer through written versus visual storytelling.
What now, though? I won’t have The Winds of Winter to hand when the end credits on Series Six’s final episode roll. Happily there’s plenty of other epic fantasy to read, so how about we share a few recommendations? Need not necessarily contain dragons. I’ll kick things off by recommending Stella Gemmell’s The City – with the review I wrote for Albedo One magazine below.
Though you needn’t write a lengthy analysis in comments yourself – the title and author is sufficient. That said, feel free to share what makes you particularly enthusiastic about a book and/or to flag up a review elsewhere.
Stella Gemmell – The City (Bantam Press/Transworld)
The reader’s double-take here will be because while Gemmell is a name synonymous with the gritty, realistic tradition, this story is written by Stella, not David. Surely this makes the debut novel hurdle ten times higher than it is for most writers. How many people will read such a book primed to dismiss it as shameless cash-in or pale imitation? Even though it’s a matter of record that Stella Gemmell is a journalist in her own right and worked with her husband on his Troy trilogy, concluding the last one after his death. Well, I didn’t read the Troy series; as a Classics graduate I very rarely read anything derived from texts I studied so thoroughly at university. So I’m coming to The City entirely new to her writing.
Stella Gemmell’s skills as an author are immediately apparent. There’s a sophistication in the story-telling as the episodic structure commands attention and engagement from the readers. A disparate and separated cast of characters are initially wandering the sewers beneath a great city, reminiscent of Byzantium but with a character all its own, and troubled by the first hints of slow-moving disaster. Though the flood that sweeps through the sewers is anything but slow-moving, sundering and reassembling the men, women and children who we’ve just met. Bartellus, former general, disgraced and tortured for a crime he’s not even aware he committed and no one ever explained. Elija and Emly, fugitive and orphaned children who barely remember daylight. Indaro, warrior woman, torn between her duty and her longing to escape what she’s seen and done.
When the flood has come and gone, the story has leaped forward and the reader must work out how this fresh narrative relates to what has gone before, and fathom links between old and new characters such as Fell Aron Lee, aristocrat and famed general coming up hard against the unwelcome realities of life as an epic hero. Meantime, readers must also piece together the emerging pieces of the plot, by which I mean both the story itself and the conspiracy that’s developing to challenge the Immortal Emperors. It’s their insistence on perpetual warfare which is ruining so many generations’ lives. Gradual revelation poses successive questions which prove to have unexpected answers. From start to finish, the tale is impressively paced with constant surprises, not least where apparently trivial elements seeded early on come to fruition, and as the scope of the storytelling goes beyond the City itself, to show us its place in the wider landscape and the history of this world.
There’s more than enough death and brutality to satisfy grimdark fantasy fans but from the outset there’s something more and richer. There’s compassion in Stella Gemmell’s writing that’s all too often lacking in current epic fantasy, leaving those stories sterile and readers distanced. Here, readers will be drawn into caring over the fate of even minor characters. More than that, the rising death toll isn’t merely there to thrill readers with vicarious slaughter. Just as Gemmell assesses the cost to common folk of selfish noble ambition, she also reveals how the suffering that results is essential to creating men and women with the dogged endurance, physical and mental, needed to challenge their Imperial masters. Especially since this is epic fantasy, not alternate history, and that means magic at work. Gemmell thinks through all the implications of the Immortals’ sorcery with the same mature intelligence, right to the very last page, leaving the reader to ponder what might follow after the book is closed.
This is the most satisfying, intelligent and enthralling epic fantasy I’ve read in many a year. It stands comparison with the finest writers currently developing and exploring the enthralling balance between realism and heroism in the epic fantasy tradition that David Gemmell pioneered.